Domestic Rural Migrants in China

By Francisca Gomez

In the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping consolidated power over the Chinese Communist Party, and became the leader of post-Mao China. The period came to be characterized by economic reform. Starting in the 1980s, the economic policies in the countryside became more liberal, and vast quantities of surplus labor were discovered. No longer needed on the farms, farmers went to the cities in search of better opportunities, where they were welcomed as a cheap source of labor. The urban welfare institutions, however, were not welcoming at all, and the consequences of the failure to provide for the rural migrants were severe. In the 1990s, with the establishment of China’s new model of the Socialist Market Economy, the wave of migration to the cities was given further momentum. Although market reform came with political reforms and institutions necessary to establish a functioning market economy, policy regarding rural migrants was full of shortcomings. It has now become urgent to rectify the double standard by which rural migrants are crucial to sustaining China’s economy, and yet, they are still marginalized from society.

The hukou is a household registration system dating to the 1950s, when the Communist Party needed to control the urban population due to limited food supply. Since the 1980s, it has increasingly become a discriminatory law, by which rural migrant workers are prevented from accessing services available to their urban counterparts. Pension insurance, education for their children, medical insurance, and decent working conditions are some examples of important social programs that ought to be available to everyone, but accessed by urban citizens. The most evident consequence of the exclusion of rural migrants from these social programs is the perpetuation of this same exclusion. While in the 1980s and 1990s, the urban workers had an interest in restricting the rural migrants, their competitors, from accessing what they considered to be the workers' welfare benefits and jobs, today the second-class status of migrant workers has become reinforced in a dangerous vicious cycle. The discriminatory laws that make migrant workers second-class citizens also diminish their chances of escaping poverty. By refusing them education and health care, the cities condemn the migrant workers to the fringes of society, working the jobs no one else wants to take. By refusing them proper treatment or guaranteeing their rights, migrant workers are condemned to second-class treatment by their employers, who see them as nothing but a source of cheap labor.

Since the first waves of migration to the cities, the gap between urban and migrant workers has grown. In the early 2000s the Central Government began to promote the concept of Social Harmony, and it has led to changes in the official policy regarding migrant workers. Officially, migrant workers now have access to employees’ social insurance, and their children to education. About a decade after the shift in policy, however, the disparity between urban and migrant workers remains. Considering the long-term consequences of the exclusion of migrant workers from urban welfare programs, it is reasonable to expect that a mere decade is insufficient time to lead to drastic changes. As discussed above, the status of second-class citizens dooms migrant workers to poverty, as they have few opportunities to improve their human capital, and continue to be seen by urban citizens as sources of cheap labor. The policy changes, the first step towards improving migrant workers’ livelihoods and status, are rather ineffective. Limited progress is made in providing social insurance; though it is worth noting that while urban counterparts have better access overall, it is nowhere close to 100% coverage and access. The provision of welfare is far from being universal and migrants who require access to medical services, or care in general (in old age, for example), are expected to return to their rural villages.

Education is one significant source of disparity between the children of urban citizens and rural migrants. Most children of rural migrants attend migrant schools (if they attended school at all), which are inferior to public schools. Since the policy changes in the early 2000s, more second-generation migrants have been able to attend public schools. Recently, these children started to enter the work force, and the challenges facing second-generation migrants have surfaced. These migrants lack the rural network that their parents rely on when the urban system inevitably fails them. Due to the discriminatory laws, the quality of their education has not allowed them to break the poverty cycle, and they have been segregated from their urban counterparts. Yet their upbringing in an urban environment has led them to hope for better jobs, and better lives than their parents, but it seems that, more often than not, they are disappointed by their prospects. Their poverty combined with their status as second-class citizens almost certainly dooms them, and their children in the future, to a continued state of poverty and a lower status.

Rural migrants are essential to the Chinese economy, and in the current slow-down of the economy economists have turned to them in hope that they will soon be in a position to boost demand for consumer goods. Even as the Chinese Government has been promoting its message of Social Harmony, the realities of migrant workers have resulted in social problems. To bring attention to their discontent with their discriminatory and unfair treatment, migrant workers have resorted to strikes, crime, and even suicide. It is imperative that the Chinese Government takes decisive and comprehensive action to address the problems facing rural migrants. The policies of the early 2000s are insufficient on their own. Banning the discriminatory hukou system, and guaranteeing rural migrants and their children full access to the social security and welfare programs of the cities is essential. The cycle of rural migrant poverty will be unbreakable otherwise. 


Jialing, Han. 2012. “Rapid Urbanization and the Aspiration and Challenge of Second-Generation Urban-Rural Migrants.” Chinese Education & Society 45: 77-83.

Li, Ying and Ernest Chui. 2010. “Government Policy and Social Exclusion of Rural Migrants in Urban China.” Asian & Pacific Migration Journal 19: 295-306.

Solinger, Dorothy J. 1999. Contesting citizenship in urban China: peasant migrants, the state, and the logic of the market (Berkeley: University of California Press).

Francisca Gomez is a Second Year in the College majoring in Political Science and Economics.